By Ron Hayes, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
[Reprinted with Permission of Palm Beach Post]
July 5, 2002, WEST PALM BEACH--"The days when you can say, 'It happened in Upchuckistan' are over," Laura Livingston says. "It's all local now." Livingston, 50, is local in both the old and new senses of the word.
She grew up in Pleasant Ridge, a tiny unincorporated development between Palm Beach Gardens and Juno Beach, graduated from Palm Beach Gardens High School and taught English and speech for three years at Boca Raton High School.
And then, in 1976, her father urged her to take the foreign service exam. Now she visits Palm Beach County every year or so.
On June 14, she left Panama City, Panama, after four years as the Narcotics Affairs Section director at the U.S. Embassy there. On July 24, she takes up the same post in New Delhi, India.
In between, she's talking to anyone who will listen about the U.S. Foreign Service as part of Secretary of State Colin Powell's Hometown Diplomat Program, which urges foreign service officers to promote career opportunities when they're home.
The greatest perk, of course, is travel. Since joining the service in 1979, Livingston has served tours of duty in Kenya, Nigeria, Belgium, Venezuela, India and Washington. "There's the icky places and the not-so-icky places," she says. Icky places would be, for example, Kosovo, Sarajevo or Algeria.
"My ickiest assignment was Caracas, Venezuela," she remembers. "We went six months once without water. My apartment building bought trucks of water and turned it on for 15 minutes, three times a day."
Her favorite assignment was Calcutta, India. "Have you ever been to someplace and said, 'This is it, I'm home?' " she asks.
A chatty woman, Livingston looks more like the college debate coach she'd planned on becoming than the director of a narcotics division in U.S. embassies. She doesn't look the type to pack a gun, and she doesn't. "I'm not operational!" she laughs, "I'm programs and policy."
Does Panama's version of the Drug Enforcement Administration need $31,000 worth of furniture? They come to Livingston. Can four Panamanian drug agents get $3,000 to attend a U.S. training course in Bolivia? She works it out. "We provide law enforcement assistance to host countries through agreements either through that country's foreign ministry or individual ministries," she recites.
And when Panamanians came to sign a sympathy book in the days after Sept. 11, Livingston volunteered to greet them. "It's not supposed to happen in America," she says. "That's why we're over there." The diplomatic reaction was immediate.
"We'd been trying to get the Panamanian government to close a nearby street that was open to vehicular traffic," she recalls. "Within hours after the attacks that street was closed, and it still is."
She lives a rich life but has not gotten rich living it. "Put it this way," she says. "In 1999 I bought a 1997 Toyota RAV4, which replaced my 1991 Toyota Tercel."
But the government pays for her trips home to Palm Beach County, where she rents a condo and visits her mother. Has she been to CityPlace yet? "What's CityPlace?" the world traveler asks. "Oh, that thing downtown? When I was growing up, the Palm Beach Mall was it. Palm Beach Mall was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me."